LANDINO: Tackling football

Daniel plays defensive tackle. His one job on the field is to sprint up the gaps between the linemen facing him and to tackle the quarterback. Defensive tackles don’t get the glory of the touchdown-catching receivers, but they play one of football’s highest impact positions. With every play, they bash the crowns of their heads in routine collisions with the 300-pound giants facing them. It’s a strategy to get leverage on the other player — to move him.

People are strange about football. Setting aside the sport’s machismo culture and the arguments about whether players should or should not be recruited to play college football, the sport has been linked to serious and lasting brain damage that has given the NFL hundreds of lawsuits but has given players and fans — particularly in college — little pause.

The stakes are high with football.

When it comes to a sport that’s central to college life — and American culture, really — we need a more rigorous dialogue about how to combat the health problems associated with football. Rather than blindly accepting or denouncing the sport, we should have these dialogues in order to build a more informed football conscience.

Defensive tackles don’t usually get concussions, or, if they do, they definitely aren’t as common as receivers’ concussions. The hits Daniel takes are what are called “subconcussive impacts.” These hits are usually not treated as seriously as full-on concussions by referees or by the players who get them. “You’re not really conscious of the hits,” Daniel told me. “You don’t really feel it.” But these subconcussive impacts happen very frequently to defensive tackles. That frequency makes all the difference.

The average college football game is 72 plays long. That’s 72 snaps. 72 300-pound clobberings. 72o head-to-head subconcussive hits for people like Daniel.

“It’s a violent game,” he told me.

Repeated subconcussive impacts over time, especially if you get them from a young age, have horrifying effects on the brain.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, starts with the axons — the thin wires holding together the brain’s cells. These wires are the highways that transport signals and messages throughout the brain. Axons, in turn, are held together by tiny glue-like proteins. Axon wires are elegant, but they’re fragile. And with repeated blows to the head, these wires begin to fray and snap.

When axons break, their glue-like proteins become their own agents. With enough hits to the head, those proteins huddle together and swarm the brain, killing healthy neurons left and right.

Scientists call the process tauopathy, and once it starts, it leaves a dark trail of memory loss, depression and eventual dementia in its wake.

The players, of course, aren’t told this. They aren’t told how football can make their brains self-destruct; how their proteins literally turn against the cells they once supported; how the whole thing is totally incurable. And why would they be? Players don’t need to know the intricacies of tauopathy. That won’t bring the Bulldogs a win. That won’t help Daniel get his next sack.

One player told me that CTE wasn’t really his focus. “A lot of people hear about the CTE part … But I just got a concussion, and one of the side effects is depression. And that sucks. When you’re in a dark room with a pounding headache, you just want that shit to end. I wasn’t even thinking about CTE, I was thinking, ‘When can I go outside again?’”

Oftentimes, though, the problem with concussions lies more with the team’s attitude toward adhering to proper safety protocol than with those glossy, padded helmets. When players show concussion-like symptoms, they have to sit out for at least one play to get routine tests (the flashlight across the pupil kind of thing). But on many teams, the enduring culture is that “you play or you’re soft.”

This pressure put on players to shrug off their head injuries so that they aren’t shamed for being “soft” is the exact attitude with which Daniel takes issue. “Players should take a breath if they have [an injury]. And take the steps to go through the proper procedure to deal with the injury. If your teammates really care about you, they will understand that. That culture has to spread.”

Despite the pressure and the concussions and the CTE fears, team members overwhelmingly stood by their decision to play football. “I never second-guessed it,” one player told me. “Football teaches you so many valuable lessons that you just can’t get from other places.”

I’m sure football offers a slew of valuable life lessons. But the cost of those benefits keeps rising as we learn more about football’s risks. When do those costs outweigh football’s benefits? I don’t know. But the good news is that players do know football’s risks. And it’s encouraging that the same team members who never second-guessed the sport also don’t want their children playing.

So, if we want to keep Yale football games, great. But we must tackle the health costs of keeping a team that puts players in such dangerous crossfires.

Sammy Landino is a sophomore in Hopper College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at sammy.landino@yale.edu .

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